Majority of Senators Skipped Important Briefing about Classified Surveillance Program

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Engaged in a full-bore PR campaign to defend the NSA domestic spying program recently revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the Obama administration dispatched several high-level officials to Capitol Hill on Thursday to conduct a classified briefing for members of the Senate…but managed to attract only 47 of the 99 currently sitting Senators.


Although some beltway observers issued predictable criticisms of the apparent lack of interest, others point out that the briefing, scheduled to occur mere hours before an adjournment for the Father's Day weekend, was at least the third such meeting in the last two weeks. The names of those who attended have not been made available, and it is possible that some of the 52 absentees had attended one of the prior briefings, or were members of one of the committees that had received briefings over the past few years.


It may well be that some senators decided that the briefing was not worth their time. Members of Congress have long complained that classified briefings are often more deceptive than educational. During the Reagan administration, for example, senators complained that they were not informed of the unlawful mining of the harbors of Nicaragua, a charge the administration denied based on briefings given by the CIA.


Gary Schmitt, now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, served as Democratic staff director on the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1982 to 1984 and told The Hill that when CIA director William Casey told members of the committee about the mining, “it was mentioned in the context of a very long briefing that Casey was giving and it was done in passive voice and in such a way as to make it sound like an ongoing program. It was a case of writing it in such a way as to obscure the fact that the agency was directly involved in the mining.”


More recently, several senators say that prior briefings on the NSA snooping suffer from similar problems. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has complained that he’s been unimpressed with answers he gets from intelligence officials, saying that what is needed are public hearings and “straight answers.” As former West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller told NPR, “It's playing with words. What does ‘brief’ mean? I would [typically] go up there to the White House and get briefed, and come back knowing nothing.”  

On the other hand, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-California), who attended a briefing on Tuesday, did learn more than she knew before, but she did not find it comforting. Appearing on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal,” she said, “I don't know if there are other leaks, if there's more information somewhere, if somebody else is going to step up, but I will tell you that I believe it's the tip of the iceberg,” She added that she was “astounded” by what she heard and that NSA’s surveillance system is “just broader than most people even realize.”

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Senators Skip Classified Briefing on NSA Snooping to Catch Flights Home (by Alexander Bolton, The Hill)

NSA Revelations only 'the tip of the iceberg,' Says Dem Lawmaker (by Daniel Strauss, The Hill)

Chris Pyle, Whistleblower on Domestic Spying in 70s, Says Be Wary of Attacks on NSA’s Critics (by Juan González, Democracy Now)

Senators Praise Classified NSA Briefings (by Burgess Everett, Politico)

Lawmakers Refute Obama’s Claim that Full Congress Knew about NSA Program (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


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